Since we are starting a new chapter today and its content is challenging and controversial, I want to offer some general introduction before looking in close detail at any of the verses. Because of the circumstances that led to Paul’s writing and the interwoven nature of the material in this chapter, it will be difficult to study the text in a perfectly straight line. We will need to refer to what Paul says midway through the chapter in order to properly understand what he says here at the beginning, and we will need to refer back to these opening verses in order to understand some of what is said later.
First Corinthians 7 is a complex chapter. It speaks of marriage, singleness, and divorce. It offers counsel in view of a “present distress,” about which we will have much to say as we study through it. But the chapter is not merely challenging because of its objective content. It is difficult because of the modern context in which we hear it. To say it plainly, I think this chapter has been widely and frequently misunderstood and misapplied in the modern American church, and some of what has led to and resulted from that misunderstanding may seem very offensive to our sensitive ears. I have been and continue to struggle with how to express these ideas with pastoral gentleness and prophetic plainness. The last thing I want is to preach it with pastoral harshness and prophetic obscurity. But how to be clear and inoffensive is hard for me to figure out, so I will ask you to be charitable in your hearing while I seek to be gentle in my speaking.
Everything in this chapter has to be read in light of the gospel and what is said in 6:18-20. You are not your own. We are called to glorify God in marriage just as much as in ministry. We are to face issues of marriage, singleness, divorce, and temptation with a gospel-centered ethic, one that acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the implications of the cross for our choices.
Eavesdropping on a Phone Call (1a)
First Corinthians was originally a response to questions the saints in Corinth had sent Paul. The first six chapters addressed additional problems the apostle had learned about, perhaps from those who delivered the Corinthians’ letter to him (cf. 1:11). Now in chapter seven Paul finally gets around to answering their inquiries, and the first questions he takes up are about sexual temptation, marriage, and singleness.
The problem is that we don’t have the original questions posed by the Corinthians. We only have Paul’s responses. This has been compared to listening to one end of a phone conversation. It leaves us uncertain of exactly what the Corinthians may have asked. Evidently we did not need the other half of the correspondence, otherwise the Spirit would have given it to us. But we have to remember as we interpret this letter that it is correspondence and not a comprehensive and systematic treatment of everything involved in the issue. If we are not careful, we might easily infer a normative doctrine from comments about their specific, historical circumstances that are neither applicable to nor appropriate for Christians as a general rule.
Let me illustrate what I mean. I might say something like, “The Lord’s Day is a holy day of feasting; therefore, we ought to eat the fat and drink the sweet. Dieting is inappropriate on your daughter’s wedding day, and it is inappropriate on the Lord’s Day. You can diet before and after the day of celebration. So each person ought to have his own donut and cup of coffee with which to sweeten the fellowship of the saints.” Now if a member of our congregation was trying to lose weight and having trouble controlling his blood sugar and cholesterol, I might say something like, “I suppose that it is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man not to eat donuts on the Lord’s Day.” I might also say, “But even if you do eat a donut, you have not sinned. Nevertheless, such will have trouble at this time, and I would spare you.” Now as a matter of fact I do not eat donuts on the Lord’s Day, and I might say, “I wish that all men were even as myself.” My body weight and cholesterol are better because I do not eat donuts on the Lord’s Day, but I have specific medical reasons it is inconvenient for me to do so. Now what would you think if someone heard me saying this and decided that abstinence from donuts is a special gift that more of us ought to aspire to, that someone it is holy and helpful never to eat a donut on Sunday?
This is where the illustration breaks down because there are several of you who probably think it would be great if fewer people ate a donut after worship. But don’t miss the point. There is a general rule for men and women in this passage and a specific exception, an exception to the rule; the rule ought ordinarily and in the vast majority of cases to be followed. But many interpreters take what is exceptional and make it normative or, at least, far more common than it ought to be.
The Counsel and What It Actually Implies (1b)
What does Paul first acknowledge in answering the question that had been sent to him? It is good for a man not to touch a woman. What does that suggest about the question? We will see in the next chapter that some of the “strong, super-Christians” in Corinth had written to Paul. They were hoping he could straighten out the weak and inferior brethren whose scruples were getting in the way. But in this case, it seems that the ones who had written about marriage might have been against it. They wanted Paul to affirm the goodness of celibacy, and he does… kind of, but not in the way they might have expected.
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. What does that mean? You’ve probably read that for years and assumed Paul means something like this: “It would be ideal if we could simply get away from marriage and sexual relations altogether. It’s a little icky, after all, and reducing the frequency of that kind of marital activity would leave us all more time for reading and prayer. If we could get a handle on these disgusting bodily desires we’d all be more spiritual and androgenous.”
You might not be surprised to learn that this misunderstands Paul’s point, rather badly. Why do I say so? Connect this statement with the next verse. Let me help you with the translation: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Now ( δὲ) because of fornication, let each man have his own wife and each woman have her own husband. Translating v.2 as “nevertheless” makes it sounds like a strong adversative, doesn’t it? As if Paul were saying, “It would be good if you all could stop being interested in sex at all, but I guess, since you are so weak, marriage is the lesser of two evils.” But that doesn’t make sense of the strong imperatives in vv.2-5. Let me help you see the imperatives in the original language.
… because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Now you might say, “But Paul says in v.6 that this is a concession and not a command.” That’s true. Paul doesn’t command any specific person to get married. But he urges the members of the Church, as a general rule, to have a spouse and to love their spouse and not to deprive their spouse in that relationship. The rule for marriage is not like the rule for baptism, i.e. everyone must do it without exception. The rule for marriage is like the rule for arms on a human body. Ordinarily there ought to be two. Sometimes there will be only one. No one is shaming or rebuking the person who only has one arm. He gets to go to heaven too. But most people are going to have two. And the ordinary pattern for Christians is marriage, not singleness.
So what does Paul’s initial counsel imply? Get married. It is good for a man not to touch a woman. And that is why he needs a wife. The typical man, including the typical believer, is going to want to touch a woman. The rule for marriage is, in part, to prevent fornication.
The Goodness and Normalcy of Marriage (2, 3-5)
Marriage is good. Sex within marriage is great. Devotion to the priority of prayer shared by married partners even to the point of brief sexual abstinence is pure blessedness and grace. Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband, and be sure they know what a wife and a husband are for. The wife is not there just to cook the meals and do the laundry. The husband is not there just to make enough money to pay the bills and take out the trash. They are there for communion, sexual and spiritual, but I repeat myself in this case. Sex is part of the spiritual communion of marriage, a covenantal exercise of mutual submission to the will of God and the pleasure of another.
We will return to these verses next week, so you might want to bring extra coloring pages to distract the youngest kids. But I hope you see that when Paul says he is making a concession, it is not the “Oh well, if it really can’t be avoided, I suppose let’s have marriage but as little fun as possible in it” sort of concession. No, Paul says each man and woman ought to have a spouse, except, of course, for those that don’t. Get married, and enjoy being married. All that enjoyment will probably lead to kids, so be prepared to baptize and catechize them as well.
Marriage is not just for the satisfaction of sexual desire, nor it is only for procreation. Both of these are biblical and legitimate reasons for marriage to be the norm, but there is another: so that Christians have an intimate companion for prayer. We can, should, and do pray together as brothers and sisters. We can, should, and do even fast together periodically in conjunction with times of prayer. But we cannot duplicate the intimate, covenantal experience of abstinence within marriage for the sake of prayer. There is simply nothing else like it. Marriage is the most intimate human relationship in this present world, and so too the spiritual communion experienced in it is likewise intense and unique, spiritual companionship like no other. This is why Paul assumes that married couples will periodically take a break from bodily pleasures to devote themselves to prayer, and it’s why the Book of Common Prayer so memorably says of marriage: It was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.
The Exception, Not to Be Made a Rule (6-7)
Paul was not married during the period we know him as an apostle in the NT, and he knew the advantages his unmarried status conveyed. While other apostles traveled with their wives when they carried the gospel to other cities (9:5), Paul had greater flexibility. He could sneak out of a city alone when his life was in jeopardy. He could remain in a community and support himself as a tent maker until financial support arrived. He was frequently arrested, beaten, and imprisoned. He was stoned once and dragged out of the city and left for dead. He was shipwrecked at least four times. Any one of these experiences would be almost impossible if he had been accompanied by a wife. The totality of them would have been unendurable, not only for Paul, but for a spouse.
Paul understood that his ability to live as he did and remain celibate was a matter of grace (χάρισμα), a gift from God not enjoyed by everyone in the Church. He knew the advantage of his situation. He could desire that others would have a similar degree of freedom and flexibility for gospel ministry. But nowhere does he suggest other apostles and ministers ought to be unmarried, much less the average Christian. On the contrary: let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.
But we should not make this expressed desire out to be more than it is. Singleness is the exception, not the rule. It is not an inferior way of life, but neither is it the primary or most desirable plan for one’s life. Paul sees the advantages it offers, and he explains them in this chapter:
But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction. (vv.32-35)
There is a level of undistracted devotion that an unmarried person can have in his or her spiritual life, but there are other advantages that marriage brings that the unmarried person cannot enjoy, e.g. spiritual intimacy in the marital covenant, relief from sexual temptations, and child-bearing as an exercise in kingdom growth.
Who Are These? And Who Does Not Belong in This Category? (8-9)
The major contextual factor in understanding what Paul says about this issue is found in v.26 but is often overlooked or under-emphasized: I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife (vv.26-27). Did you see the key context? Paul’s counsel here is because of the present distress. What does he counsel? Do not seek a wife. There you have it. Let’s absolutize this counsel, make it normative for all Christians, and stop having all of these babies born. No more weddings! No more births! No more catechizing young children. God forbid. Reprobates believe in fruitless sacraments: abortion and sodomy. Their tree is dead and will never bear any offspring. But the kingdom of Christ is built through conversion of the nations and covenant families. God believes in fruitful marriage, fruitful parenting, and faithful people to a thousand generations.
I cannot stress this enough: What Paul says in vv.6-8 is what he says in v.27, i.e. do not seek a wife… right now. This is not a normative principle. This is not saying that singleness and celibacy is to be preferred to marriage. It is not suggesting that there is some widespread gifting which allows vast swaths of young people in the Church to live as spiritual eunuchs. It is simply apostolic wisdom, counsel given to saints who are being persecuted, not a divine command. If you are likely to be arrested, if you may have to flee from your business and home, if you are more likely to die at the stake than in the old folks’ home, then this may not be the best time to begin courting. But Paul immediately says: But even if you do marry, you have not sinned (v.28). That settles it. We are talking about advice for specific circumstances at a specific point in time. We are not establishing a new normal of monastic celibacy.
In the last 20+ years there has been a lot of Christian writing and teaching on the “gift” of singleness. I do believe that God calls some people to be single. There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake (Matt. 19:12). Fair enough. God also gives some people grace to serve him with a disability, or a chronic disease, or in poverty, or in the midst of great suffering and loss. There is grace in all of these conditions of life too, but we don’t treat them the way many evangelicals have come to treat singleness. In many Reformed denominations there is a huge number of unmarried young people. Why? No doubt there are many reasons. The impact of feminism, the softening and coddling of young males, the prioritizing of education and careers over building homes and families, etc. But might one of the major factors be the changing attitude toward singleness? Our promotion of the virtue of singleness has led many young men and women who want to be married to wonder whether they are called to be single. But young people are also asking whether they might be gay or transgender because many of their friends suddenly decided they are. The fact that something is trendy and popular does not make it true. If you want to be married, you aren’t called to singleness. If you think you are called to singleness but are struggling with porn, you are a fool. The gift is celibacy, not singleness.
“Virginity, I acknowledge, is an excellent gift; but keep it in view, that it is a gift. Learn, besides, from the mouth of Christ and of Paul, that it is not common to all, but is given only to a few. Guard, accordingly, against rashly devoting what is not in your own power, and what you will not obtain as a gift, if forgetful of your calling you aspire beyond your limits.” –John Calvin, Commentary
There is a difference between chastity and celibacy. God calls everyone of his children to chastity, i.e. sexual purity appropriate to our current station. I am married, so it is lawful for me to look at, think about, and enjoy my wife. It is not lawful for me to look at, think about, and enjoy other women in the same way. I may notice that God made a certain woman beautiful, but I must discipline my heart, my mind, and my eyes immediately and continually. Chastity for the married looks like sexual monogamy—and joyful monogamy, as we will see when we return to vv.3-5. Chastity for someone who is not yet married requires abstinence, discipline of the eyes and mind while actively seeking, praying, and watching for the one to whom he or she may be given. All of us are commanded to practice chastity, but very few are called by God to lifelong celibacy.
There is one more point that I will only briefly mention. I do not have time to develop it, and I am not prepared to be dogmatic about it. You may think that it is obvious whom Paul is referring to in v.8 when he says the unmarried and widows, but I think what he may be referring to something other than what you’re assuming. The word unmarried is only used in the NT in this chapter (vv.8, 11, 32, 34). In v.34 it refers to a virgin, a “never before married” person. But in v.11 it refers to a person who has been abandoned or divorced. I think a good case can be made that when Paul refers to unmarried and widows in v.8, he is referring to those who were married but who are no longer married due to the abandonment or death of their spouse. I also think a case can be made that Paul was in this category. I would not be dogmatic about it, but if this is so, it further reinforces that this advice is specific to a particular set of historical circumstances, since Paul elsewhere counsels young widows to remarry (1Tim. 5:14). This is not a large group of spiritually gifted celibates but a group who have been providentially released from their former obligation to a spouse and are now being called to use that freedom more fully for Christ.
I warned in the introduction to this sermon—which is itself an introduction to the chapter—that some things would be said in these lessons that might seem personally convicting or offensive, and even now I tremble to think of that being the case. But as a preacher, I am called to simply preach the Word as we come to it without fear or favor. Moreover as your pastor, I hope you find this chapter to not only be convicting but liberating and empowering. God is not calling you to agony and morbid introspection, staring constantly at your belly button hoping it will whisper to you whether you are called to be married or not. We need much less pseudo-spiritual self-absorption in the Reformed community and more joyful and energetic obedience in pursuing the will and pleasure of God.
If you want to be married, then you probably ought to be. People who are gifted and called to a life of celibacy are not generally filled with God-given passions and desires to be otherwise. Don’t look at your desire to be married as an inferior path or something to be ashamed of and suppressed. View it instead as a sense of divine calling. Be patient, but persistent. Pray, prepare for, and pursue a godly spouse. Did I mention pray? I can’t emphasize the importance of that enough. Did I mention prepare? You are not building a home while sleeping in your parents’ basement. You are not cultivating the resources to provide for a wife by spending 14 hours a day practicing to go pro playing Halo. Get a job, pursue a career, save money, be responsible, stop watching porn, act like a man (or woman), and be the kind of person someone else would want to marry.
Because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. That’s good advice. Until you have a spouse, be pure and faithful. Once you have a spouse, be pure and faithful. And if you never have a spouse, or never have another, be pure and faithful. God calls us to holiness: inside, outside, and through the covenant of marriage. –JME